Philly booed Santa, but Santa still smiles
Frank Olivo, who was once pelted with snowballs, still loves fans in Philadelphia
PHILADELPHIA -- The old suit fell apart around the same time the old man's body did. There have been a hundred stories written about Frank Olivo's Santa costume, and most of them, he said, have been inaccurate. It was not a frumpy suit; it cost $100, which was big money back in the 1960s. It lasted nearly 40 Christmases, thanks to a lot of sewing and mending by his wife, but the corduroy finally gave, and Olivo sighed when the suit had to be put to rest.
A long time ago, before that suit became infamous, Rosalie Olivo swore she'd never end up with a guy like Frank. Italian men, she said, were not her type. They expected their women to mother them, to take care of them. But how could she resist when he came to her job at the luncheonette, reading tarot cards, saying she was destined to marry a fat barber? How could she know that years later, she'd quit her job to take care of him?
Frank Olivo is a romantic, but most of all, he is a ham. That's why he used to show up for the Philadelphia Eagles' final home game every season dressed in a Santa suit. He loved Christmas, loved his Eagles and loved the attention. And then one snowy day, Dec. 15, 1968, a halftime show was in jeopardy, a fan base was cold and discontented, and Olivo was summoned from the stands to walk the length of the football field and wave to the crowd and entertain them.
What happened in the next few minutes of this seemingly innocuous event became a staple of Philadelphia history. Santa was booed and pelted with snowballs, and a city cemented its reputation as the harshest place in sports. The story never died, and is still brought up 43 years later, every time a legend is jeered or a car with out-of-state license plates is trashed.
"Philadelphia sports fans have the reputation of being the worst in the country," Olivo said, "and it's bull. Because the Philadelphia sports fan, regardless of whether the team is good or bad, they will fill these stadiums, they'll put their money out to go to these games, they'll support the team.
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Watch Jeremy Schaap's original TV piece about the booed Santa at 3 p.m. (ET) Friday on ESPN.
"They're smart fans. They live and die with their teams. I do."
Of course there is more to this Philadelphia story, and Olivo wants to tell it. He is 63 now, and has survived six heart attacks. The stress from his last bypass damaged a plexus nerve, which limits his use of his left arm. He's left-handed. He takes morphine daily, had to go on disability, and the hospital bills eventually forced them to move in with Rosalie's mother, a spry 93-year-old woman who loves the 76ers. They're happy in this row-home, blue-collar neighborhood in Glenolden, a Philly suburb. They're getting ready for Christmas.
A decorated tree sits next to Olivo's recliner, and the kitchen table is covered with trays of food. Olivo chomps on some pizza and Stromboli, the best, he says, in town. He knows he shouldn't be eating this stuff, or smoking the cigarette that he puffs on a few minutes later outside. He wants to enjoy his life. Olivo tells Rosalie that when his time comes, bury him in a Santa suit. She cringes at that thought.
But as much as that one little jaunt across a football field stamped Philadelphia, it also defined a man's life. Olivo's mailman knows he's the Philly Santa. Nearly everyone in the city is familiar with the story, even the rookies on the Eagles' roster who were decades from being born when the snowballs flew.
"Well, naturally, I love it," Olivo said. "I'm the guy that wanted to be in show business, so this is as far as I got.
"My 15 minutes of fame lasted 43 years, you know?"
The story was barely a mention in the morning newspapers on Dec. 16, 1968, the day after the Santa game. The Eagles had lost, again, mercifully ending a 2-12 season. The boys in green couldn't seem to do anything right that year, couldn't win, couldn't even be consistently terrible enough to earn the No. 1 pick in the 1969 draft, which likely would've netted future Hall of Famer O.J. Simpson.
There was seemingly no hope in Philly. Their coach, Joe Kuharich, was loathed by the city and locked into an unprecedented 15-year contract. The frustration and tension was palpable on that mid-December day. An airplane flew over Franklin Field, dragging a banner that said, "Joe Must Go," and the winds were whipping after a heavy snow covered the bleachers at Franklin Field. It was the perfect storm for mayhem.
Former Eagles special teams player Vince Papale, who was in the bleachers that day, said it was possibly the coldest football game he'd ever attended.
"It was a miserable day in a stadium that had no warmth whatsoever," Papale said. "The wind was coming off the backside of the Schuylkill River. There was not much relief at all."
Like most Sundays, Olivo and his uncles arrived at the game early. They liked to watch the warm-ups, to see which guys would give it their all that day. Sundays were always the same in the Olivo family -- church, football, then a big Italian dinner at grandma's house. The family had season tickets since the 1950s, in good times and bad. They had one unspoken rule: No matter how bad their beloved team was, they stayed until the end of the game. True fans, Olivo said, never leave early.
Those season tickets in 1968 cost him $27, and the people who filled the bleachers at Franklin Field were just like Olivo and Papale -- hard-working, gritty and loyal. Papale, the inspiration behind the movie "Invincible," was working his way through college when he sat in Row 44, Section AA with three of his buddies for that season finale.
Like Olivo, he remembers a lot of tiny details from that meaningless game, which he never even considered skipping.
"Are you kidding?" he said. "When you're a season-ticket holder, that's what you do. We'd walk over to the parking lot and see the players' cars, and it was all part of that Sunday ritual you did. It was never something you considered missing, in spite of the weather and the record. That's what defines Eagles fans. Passion and loyalty."
Papale said he was laughing when he saw Olivo down on the field at halftime. The snowstorm prevented the Eagles' regular Santa, who was based in Atlantic City, N.J., from coming to the game. So an Eagles employee asked Olivo to fill in. The instructions were simple: When the song "Here Comes Santa Claus" started, that was his cue to walk through a column of cheerleaders and the Eagles' orchestra from one end zone to the other, then head back along the track.
He was given an equipment bag to lug as Santa's sack. But the Franklin Field crowd was not in the mood for cheap entertainment. Not after watching that season. They booed loudly the moment he hit the field, and when he made it to the track, he was in range. The snowballs started flying, hitting him in his jolly front and back. His fake white eyebrows were knocked off.
Accounts of how many snowballs were thrown vary. Olivo said he was hit by at least 100 of them; Papale said that perhaps 1 percent of the crowd fired away.
Olivo's cousin, Rich Monastra, called it a "tsunami of snowballs."
"I'm saying, 'Christ, he's going to get killed out there,'" Monastra recalled. "But he's a champ. He just kind of came through it OK."
Accounts of how Olivo presented himself varied, too. Newspaper stories portrayed him as a sorry, skinny and drunk Santa in a tattered suit. But Olivo's costume was top-notch, and he was alcohol-free. His nickname was "Beefy," so that pretty much shot down the scrawny part of the story.
Olivo wasn't angry at the fans, and tried to have fun with it. He was one of them. He understood their angst. When he spotted one man who'd just fired a snowball and missed, he yelled, "You're not getting nothing for Christmas!"
Eventually, Olivo received a gift from the Eagles for his work -- a pair of football-shaped cufflinks and a tie tack -- and went home that night thinking that was the end of the story. It wasn't. A clip of the incident ran on Howard Cosell's wrap-up of the day, and the story went national.
"It didn't become a big thing until a couple years later when some other incident happened at a sporting event," Olivo said, "and somebody brought up, 'Well, what do you expect from those fans? They even threw snowballs at Santa Claus!'"
Time passed. Frank and Rosalie had a son and a daughter and eventually moved to the Jersey shore when he got a job at a casino. Frank hated giving up his Eagles season tickets. But eventually, the rest of his relatives had to surrender theirs, too, when new stadiums resulted in personal seat licenses and priced the old fans out. It wasn't just happening in Philadelphia; it happened everywhere.
After the infamous Santa game, he was asked if he wanted to be the halftime Santa again in 1969. Olivo politely declined, and said he was worried that if it didn't snow again that next year, the fans would resort to throwing beer bottles instead. But he did play Santa to much smaller crowds, to his kids, his nieces and nephews and friends, to complete strangers.
And just about every Christmas, a local paper or TV station called and asked Olivo to relive that day in 1968. In 2002, just after he had bypass surgery, Philadelphia magazine wanted him to don a Santa suit, in the dead of summer, for a photo shoot. His wife said heck no, but Frank said the show had to go on. He loves his Eagles, and the connection that day gives him to his team.
Today, he tries to make it to an occasional game when he can afford it. His daughter Vicky gave him an early Christmas present last month: a ticket to the Eagles-Patriots game. He went with his grandson Paul, who made a poster for school about how his pop-pop played Santa at an Eagles game.
The game was a disaster for the Eagles. They were blown out 38-20, and the crowd chanted for coach Andy Reid's firing. Though he was cold and miserable, Olivo tried to stay until the end. He left with about two minutes to go so he could maneuver through the traffic with his cane.
"I know he was excited [about the game]," Monastra said. "He doesn't get out much because of his health. We took him to a Phillies game last year. It was tough for him to get around the stadium, and he feels like he's a burden sometimes. But he isn't, obviously.
"Frank's always been the most loved of all the cousins."
On Sunday afternoon, the Eagles were 5-8 but somehow still had a mathematical chance to make the playoffs, so Lincoln Financial Field was packed. Fans wore T-shirts that said TRIM THE FAT. FIRE ANDY. There was no hastily-planned Christmas pageant at halftime -- NFL fans are far too sophisticated for that now -- and very few boos.
A dominant team Philadelphia had longed for back in September unleashed a 45-19 pummeling on the New York Jets, and Olivo watched it from his basement with his grandson Pauli. Olivo is still hopeful that the Eagles can make the playoffs. He always has hope.
But it's been a rather depressing year, from the Phillies' implosion to the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State to the Eagles' baffling struggles.
Maybe it's different in other cities. Maybe no other place cares as much as Philadelphia. Back at the Linc, rookie linebacker Casey Matthews was still trying to figure it all out. He has been a recent lightning rod of criticism, in part because he's the brother of Packers superstar Clay Matthews and has a world of expectations heaped upon him, but also because he recently noted, to a local reporter, that the fans made his fiancée cry at a home game.
Matthews wasn't whining about it; he was simply articulating how different it is playing in Philadelphia. He knew it would be a challenge. Right after he was drafted, the Santa story was relayed to Matthews.
"They're just very passionate," Matthews said. "I mean, I didn't know they boo their own players, but that's just how it is. It pushes you to try to get them to like you, you know?"
But on Sunday night, it was clear that Matthews was starting to endear himself to the critics. He forced a Santonio Holmes fumble and dropped LaDainian Tomlinson for a 4-yard loss. Outside the stadium, a group of fans from Lancaster, Pa., said they're rooting for Matthews, even if it doesn't always seem that way. This is the town that booed Mike Schmidt and cheered when Dallas Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin laid motionless on the turf with a neck injury back in 1999.
"He was a hated Dallas Cowboy," Don Schwebel, a 57-year-old fan from Lancaster reasoned. "He was there."
Schwebel was at Sunday's game because his son, Mike, saved up and bought him a ticket for Christmas. They're hard-working people. Demanding people.
"We expect the best out of them," Mike said. "It's a blue-collar town, and they expect the best. And if you're not going to play your best, you're going to hear it."
Frank Olivo doesn't boo anymore. The Eagles can look flat and outclassed, can frustrate him for six straight days after a Sunday, but Olivo won't do it. He stopped booing after that last game on Dec. 15, 1968. See, the snowballs never hurt him. But those 50,000 voices on top of him did.
At first, he can't quite articulate what it felt like, and that's saying a lot for a man who tells five stories without being asked one question. He's always heard players and coaches say they block out the boos. He doesn't believe them.
"You feel like they're all against you individually," he said. "And that's why, when I heard it, I said to myself, 'My God, what do these players think or feel when they're getting booed?' It's like you're being told you're not good enough to be here."
And that, Olivo said, is the end of the story on the day Philadelphia booed Santa. Well, almost. A few years ago, a local businessman offered him $1,000 for the famous cufflinks the Eagles gave him, and Olivo said no. But he became friends with the man, who called him up the other day on the anniversary of the Santa incident and told him he'd take Olivo to a game next season, when the weather is warmer and the Eagles' outlook is better.
Olivo was happy about that. But he'll never give up the cufflinks. It's part of a day, and a memory, he wants to keep.
"It's a sentimental thing to me," he said. "It's like, if a player had a Super Bowl ring, would he sell it?"
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.